Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Mary Landrieu and the Need for Campaign Finance Reform

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA)
Politicians, even after they leave office, wield a great deal of power.  Whether it's through their inevitably high-paying roles as lobbyists, their second careers as Washington bureaucrats, or their occasional rise back into power (people from Bill Clinton to Rick Nolan have proven there are second acts in politics), former officeholders retain a number of privileges they held while they were in office.  One of the less commented about of these privileges is that they also retain a potentially massive advantage as lobbyists in their abilities to reward candidates and incumbents with donations from their old campaign coffers.

Yes, for those of you who were not aware, the money that a losing campaign has, provided that it doesn't end in debt, stays within the control of the losing incumbent, who can dole that money out to whichever federal candidates (or charities) they so choose.  This has given the impression that some candidates have been able to use their campaign contributions for their personal advantage.  Around thirty candidates with such accounts are registered lobbyists, including former Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns.  Stearns, after losing his 2013 primary, was left with around $1.5 million in his campaign account, which he has in years since given to former colleagues, many of whom it should be noted have voted in favor of his work on behalf of the energy industry.  I'm not saying that impropriety is happening in these cases, but it does seem to leave open a world of potential corruption.  Even Stearns himself has said he wants to keep the account open, "for whatever the future brings."

As a result of this, I think it's time to put some stricter rules around what this campaign cash, which totals nearly $46 million (a hefty amount of money, though obviously not a huge amount in the grand scheme of a billion-dollar election) can be used for, and how soon it should be used.  It is ridiculous, for example, that money that was donated to former Michigan Sen. Donald Riegle, Jr. still exists over twenty years after Riegle lost a race for reelection.  I fully back Rep. Mark Takano's bill to allow campaign committees to exist only for six years after the member of Congress leaves office, guaranteeing that that money is spent (which was its initial intention) or is donated to charity, and doesn't become simply a slush fund to assist the former members of Congress years after they run for election.  They either need to run for another federal office (using that money), donate it to another political committee, or donate it to a charitable organization during that time.  Six years is the right amount of time because it's the longest amount of time before all congressional seats in the state are up for election again (allowing the candidate to plan a rematch if they so choose).  I'd go further than Takano, though-I vote that in order for a former member of Congress to register as a lobbyist, they have to have retired their campaign accounts.  There's too much opportunity for corruption in these situations, and regulation is the only way that we're going to start to take the money out of politics, a constant refrain from Americans of all-stripes.

I would also want to add a third addendum onto that money, however, one that actually inspired this article in the first place: the donations that are made to other political candidates need to be to someone of the same party as the former member.  The reason I bring this up is that former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu has gotten some press today for stating that she would be open to donating her campaign account (which admittedly is a relatively small $146k, though that's not nothing) to select Republicans, naming in particular Sens. Susan Collins and Rob Portman.  As someone who has donated money to Landrieu and whose money personally may well be in that $146k, I find this infuriating.  Landrieu and I have not agreed on every issue through the years, but the donations I made to her campaign coffer were made in the trust that they would go to helping a Democrat win reelection and help Democrats control the U.S. Senate.  Initially I had hoped this would be the case with Landrieu and keeping her in her former seat, but even if it wasn't, the money should go to helping Democrats win election or reelection, particularly considering Landrieu herself was a Democrat for her entire eighteen years in the Senate.  I'm not standing here assuming Landrieu needs to give her cash to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but there are plenty of moderate-to-conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, or Ann Kirkpatrick that could use that money and still help the Democratic Party.  To do something else with that money is betraying the trust that donors give to individual candidates.  People like Landrieu, and people on their behalf, campaigned heartily saying that her vote was a critical one for the Democrats and one that would be important for the party.  To betray that would be a huge stab-in-the-back, and one that I think Landrieu shouldn't take...and one that the law should compel her not to be able to do.  If she wanted to donate her campaign coffers to Democrats and Republicans, she should have campaigned as an Independent.

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